In my last post for Folklife Today, I shared some of the great recordings on the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, a program of the Library that honors historically significant recordings and draws attention to the importance of audio preservation and audio archives in the stewardship of American culture and history. Specifically, I discussed recordings from the registry which are part of the American Folklife Center’s unparalleled archive of folk music and oral history recordings. In this post, I’ll bring you up to date with more stories about AFC’s items on the registry, along with links where you can listen to most of them.
In 2004, the registry inducted a cylinder recording of “The Suncook Town Tragedy,” sung by Mabel Wilson Tatro of Springfield, Vermont, in 1930, a single song out of 4,800 field recordings in the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad collection. Flanders was a pioneering folklore collector in New England, especially her home state of Vermont, and was also the wife of U.S. Senator Ralph Flanders of Vermont. Because of her congressional connection, she maintained a relationship with the Library of Congress, and some of her original recordings reside here. However, many of the Flanders collection’s original discs and cylinders are at Middlebury College in Vermont. Not to worry, however: AFC maintains preservation copies of these items, including this song, so you can research her audio recordings both here and in Vermont. “The Suncook Town Tragedy” is a ballad about the real-life murder of Josie Langmaid, a New Hampshire high school student, by Joseph Lapage, a sawmill worker, in 1875. Lapage was convicted and executed in 1878. The ballad describes the murder, the discovery of the crime, and the trial and execution of Lepage, all fairly typical for American murder ballads. Mrs. Tatro, the singer, had family members who knew the victim. The song is on the 100th cylinder in Flanders’s collection. According to her book, Vermont Folk-Songs & Ballads, the song was recorded by her coworker, Mrs. Alice Brown, on August 24, 1930. (It’s possible that by “recorded,” Flanders meant that Brown took the song down in writing from Mrs. Tatro’s singing; if this is the case, Flanders probably returned and made the cylinder recording in November, 1930.)
While this song is not available for online listening, other Flanders recordings are. Another song by Mrs. Tatro from the very same cylinder, digitized by the Irene optical scanning system, can be heard here, and a fiddle tune from the collection can be heard here. You can also hear cylinders and discs from the Flanders collection at this link from Middlebury College.
In the player below, you can hear Flanders herself and one of her singers. She’s introduced by the former head of the Library of Congress Folklore Section (and of what became the AFC Archive), Duncan Emrich; then she introduces singer Asa Davis, who performs an Irish-American version of the old British ballad “The Farmer’s Curst Wife.” The recording was made at a lecture and concert entitled “New England Balladry,” presented by Flanders right here in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress on February 27, 1948.
In 2007, the registry included ‘Freight Train,’ and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes by Elizabeth Cotten. This is the debut album of singer, songwriter, guitarist, and banjo player Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, released when she was over 60 years old. A self-taught musician, she had an expressive two-finger guitar style, which was enormously influential on folk revival guitarists. Like many rural left-handed musicians of the time, she played standard right-handed instruments, holding them upside-down. Cotten was a popular performer during the folk music revival of the 1960s, and a major inspiration to many aspiring musicians. Among many honors, she was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984. She wrote “Freight Train” at the age of 12, inspired by living next to the railroad tracks.
The recordings that went into this album, which were made by musician and collector Mike Seeger in 1958, are held by several institutions. Masters of this album and other albums by Cotten are in the Smithsonian’s Folkways Archive. Mike Seeger’s original collection, including the original recordings that were duplicated for the Folkways masters, along with many other recordings of Cotten and hundreds of other musicians, went to the Southern Folklife Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Another copy of this larger collection came here to the American Folklife Center, and is among many Seeger-related collections in the archive. You can read a detailed article on Cotten, with an embedded video of “Freight Train,” and embedded audio of several other tracks, at this page on the Smithsonian Folkways website.
In 2008, the registry included Frank Proffitt’s 1940 recording of the song “Tom Dooley,” as well as the Kingston Trio’s 1958 recording of the same song. The Proffitt recording is in the AFC archive. Proffitt first sang the murder ballad “Tom Dooley” for Frank and Anne Warner in 1938 in Beech Mountain, North Carolina. The Warners returned to record Proffitt singing it two years later, accompanying himself on the guitar. (Later still, in 1949, they recorded him singing it to the accompaniment of a banjo of his own making; both recordings are in the archive, and make for an interesting comparison.) The song recounts the real-life 1866 murder of Laura Foster by Thomas Dula, and Dula’s subsequent confession and execution. Proffitt’s performance provided the basis for performances of the song by Frank Warner, himself a folksinger who toured nationally from the 1940s through the 1960s. (The AFC archive has a recording of Warner performing it, too–here’s the catalog card!) Proffitt’s rendition also provided the basis for an arrangement published by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax in their 1947 book Folk Song: U.S.A.
Frank Proffitt’s performance of the song was also the basis of the Kingston Trio’s recording; Trio member Bob Shane, in a 1983 interview transcribed and posted online, remembered two sources, The Tarriers and Frank Warner. (NB: Although Shane confuses Frank with his son, Jeff Warner, who is also a well known folksinger, he clearly states that the source was the person given credit for collecting the song, i.e. Frank Warner.) The Tarriers’ version also seems to have been based on Warner’s, and Warner’s was certainly based on Proffitt’s. It is also very likely that The Kingston Trio knew the version in Folk Song: U.S.A.; they later agreed to a legal settlement with the book’s publisher for a portion of the royalties. The Kingston Trio’s rendition became a number-one hit, and also won the very first Grammy Award for Best Country and Western Performance. The song’s popularity is credited with starting the “folk boom,” which led to a later, more sustained folk revival in the 1960s and 1970s. For all these reasons, Frank Proffitt’s original recording in the AFC archive is considered not only a treasure in its own right, but the inspiration for another important work of American art. Hear it in the player below!
In 2010, the registry recognized the 1959 field recordings of the United Sacred Harp Musical Convention in Fyffe, Alabama, made by folklorists Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins. Lomax characterized the folk polyphony of this Sacred Harp convention as “choral music for a nation of individualists.” About 150 Southern shape-note singers ranging in age from under 10 to over 90 participated, singing from The Sacred Harp, a hymnal written in so-called “shape notes,” a 19th-century system of musical notation designed for congregational singing. Sacred Harp or shape note singing consists of invigorating and complex pieces sung in four parts by participants seated around a square, thus creating the multi-directional cascades of voices heard on these recordings. Lomax and others had earlier documented Sacred Harp singing on monophonic discs, but these first stereo tape recordings of traditional American folk music were much better at capturing the music’s energy and complexity. The future of the tradition was very much in doubt when these recordings were made. However, the dissemination of these recordings, first in Lomax’s commercial releases and later through his organization The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE), helped preserve and revitalize this uniquely American form both inside and outside its original communities. Partly thanks to the influence of these recordings, Sacred Harp singing events are held in most areas of the United States, and in many other countries as well. The recordings came to AFC in 2004 as part of the Alan Lomax Collection, but their online access is provided by our colleagues at ACE. These recordings from Fyffe are available at this page of the ACE website.
In 2011, the board listed an episode of the Indians for Indians Hour radio show, originally broadcast on March 25, 1947. Originated by Don Whistler (a.k.a. Chief Kesh-ke-kosh), the Indians for Indians Hour was a radio show aired on WNAD at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma from 1941 until 1985. It was a weekly venue for Native American music and cultural exchange featuring guests and music from 18 tribes reached by the station’s signal, including Apache, Arapaho, Caddo, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Comanche, Kaw, Kiowa, Osage, Oto, Pawnee, Ponca, Seminole, Shawnee, and Wichita. Whistler allowed only Indian music and no non-Indian guests unless they worked for Indian Services. This program, one of 320 known to survive, includes news of a recent powwow and songs praising Indian war veterans sung by a group of Kiowa war mothers. Though the program was sometimes criticized for highlighting music and entertainment instead of issues, it nevertheless served as an important tool for generational sharing and the popularization and preservation of Native American culture. In 1946, the Indians for Indians Hour reached an estimated weekly audience of over 75,000, almost all of Native American origin. Whistler hosted the show until his death in 1951. Later hosts included Allen Quetone, Mose Poolaw, Clyde Warrior, and Boyce Timmons. Although a few original disc recordings of the Indians for Indians Hour are in the AFC Archive (see this catalog record), this program is one of many duplicated for the AFC Archive on reel-to-reel tape in the 1980s, as shown by this catalog record. Research on this program can thus be done at the University of Oklahoma, where the bulk of the original discs survive, and at AFC, where we maintain copies.
In 2011, the American Folklife Center was also honored to have one of our original productions listed on the registry, the online presentation Voices from the Days of Slavery, which went online in 2002. The presentation gathers together 24 interviews with former African-American slaves conducted mostly between 1932 and 1941, across nine Southern states, as part of various field recording projects. During this period, thousands of slave narratives were also collected on paper by WPA workers. However, Voices from the Days of Slavery contains the only known audio recordings of former slaves. As historian C. Vann Woodward said of the WPA narratives, these recordings “represent the voices of the normally voiceless,” but with all the nuances of expression that written transcriptions cannot reproduce. They recall aspects of slave life and culture, including family relations, work routines, songs, dances, and tales, as well as the speakers’ relationships with masters, brutal punishments, heartbreaking auctions, and harrowing escapes. They recount experiences of the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. One interviewee worked for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, as did his father and grandfather. These are fragments of history, and reflect the technical and social limitations of the recording sessions, but the voices of these ex-slaves provide valuable insight into their lives, communities, and the world of slavery they left behind. The entire presentation is online here.
That brings us back to the recently announced 2014 registry, which included The Benjamin Ives Gilman Collection Recorded at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago. I discussed this collection, and the National Recording Registry in general, in my last post…which, in case you missed it, is here!
[Note: Like my last post, this post drew on text prepared for the National Recording Registry by other Library of Congress staff members. I don’t know the authors’ names, and the text is in the public domain. However, I’d like to once again acknowledge and thank my colleagues throughout the Library!]